CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. – Steven Fox put on a clinic on how to win a golf tournament on Sunday afternoon.
Trailing Michael Weaver 2-down with two holes to play in the U.S. Amateur at historic Cherry Hills Country Club, Fox, the UTC senior, remained unflappable, smiling as he walked down the 17th fairway, certain of what he had to do. Faced with a medium-length birdie putt to win the hole and extend the match, Fox drained it. One down.
Still calm, still smiling, Fox nestled a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 18 close enough for the par putt to be conceded, and watched as Weaver tried to negotiate a 5-foot par putt for the win. The ball started off on line, then hit a bump in the green just inches from the hole. That threw it off just enough for it to slide into the left side of the hole and back out – a dreaded horseshoe.
“I played it about right edge,” Weaver said. “I wanted to hit it – not ram it in, but make sure I got it there. I didn’t want to play it outside the hole really.
“I hit a good putt, hit my line, and I mean just – for it to lip out like that, I would rather it just not even have hit the hole. I mean I would have rather just hit a bad putt, you know, and that’s that, but to have that happen, I mean I don’t know what to say.”
Fox was as stunned as Weaver when the putt didn’t fall.
“It was like dead center from my angle, and when I saw it bounce out, I kind of gasped a little bit,” Fox said. “I think I put my hand over my mouth. I was shocked. And quickly I had to gather myself and go to the playoff.”
Next came extra holes. The No. 1 hole at Cherry Hills, a 338-yard par-4, has a special place in golf history. Arnold Palmer drove the green there in the 1960 U.S. Open, setting up an easy birdie that led to a 30 on the front nine, a 65 and the championship.
Fox didn’t have designs on following Palmer into history. At least not the way Palmer got there.
Instead, Fox left his driver in the bag, pulled out an iron and pierced the middle of the fairway. That left a wedge approach, which he hit to about 12 feet behind the hole.
Weaver, meanwhile, hit driver, but he slashed his ball left of the green. His first pitch found deep rough beside the green, and his third shot left him a 30-foot par putt.
Now, it was Weaver’s turn to watch.
And Fox, cool, calm and collected as he was most of the week at Cherry Hills, assessed the most important putt of his life, a downhill number that didn’t have to be hit very hard. After taking one final look at the hole, Fox slowly took back his putter and nestled the ball down the slope. It seemed to take forever, but it toppled in over the right edge.
Fox was the U.S. Amateur champion.
Now Fox’s name is forever linked with the greats of the game. Bobby Jones won the Amateur. So did Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. No one can ever take that away from Fox, no matter what else he does, or doesn’t do, the rest of his golfing career.
The win came with an assortment of other perks, including a trip to the 2013 Masters, the 2013 U.S. Open-at another famed venue, Merion, near Philadelphia-and the 2013 British Open.
“I mean none of it’s sunk in,” Fox said. “I guess I’ve tried picturing myself on the first tee at Augusta, and it doesn’t seem real. Going to play the par-3 contest at the U. S. Open. I mean I can’t even picture myself there. It’s going to be unreal and feel like a dream when I’m there again.”
The most impressive thing about Fox’s victory is that he had to battle every step of the way – literally.
After the first 18 holes of 36-hole regional qualifying last month, he shot 74. But Fox rallied with a 63 to earn his spot in the tournament.
Once he got to Cherry Hills, Fox had to survive a 17-player-for-14-spots playoff just to get into match play. And in match play, where he was seeded 63 out of 64 players, he had to beat the best golfing doctor in the U.S., according to Golf Digest, the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, and an All-American from California.
Sunday, Fox was 3-down in the first 18 holes, and he seemed left for dead after Weaver went dormie on the 16th hole.
Fox had plenty of help. On Saturday night, a contingent from Chattanooga arrived, including UTC head coach Mark Guhne and his assistant, Ben Rickett. Rickett even replaced Fox’s father, Alan, as caddy after the morning round, and that may have been a key to the victory.
“My dad is 53 years old, and I’m sure he’s tired,” Fox said. “This is not an easy course to walk, and going 36 would have been tough.
“But Ben’s walked with me a lot during college. We get along. You could watch; we were smiling the whole day, laughing, making jokes and enjoying the crowd. It was awesome.
“And the reason I changed is the morning round I made a few mistakes and would just fire and not pick a target. And with Ben as my caddie, we did talk about every shot, and Ben was perfect for the job.”